RICHMOND, Va. -- A nationwide study into the health of women and children found that many Virginia children who are eligible for nutritious supplemental foods and support aren't receiving them.
In their '2021 Health of Women and Children Report,' The United Health Foundation found low WIC coverage among eligible children ages one through four in Virginia. WIC is the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children.
Those findings — based on data from 2018 — showed Virginia ranked 42nd in the nation for those eligible children having access to the program.
The program provides low-income families with children under five with nutrition education, support for breastfeeding mothers, and supplemental foods, among other things.
"If you think about the child who goes to school hungry, it's hard to pay attention and perform well academically," said Dr. Rhonda Randall, Chief Medical Officer of the United Health Foundation. "These are children ages one to four that qualify for the program but are not getting coverage. So, sometimes it's a matter of getting them signed up."
Jamia Crockett, CEO of Families Forward Virginia, works to connect parents and children equitably to available resources needed.
She said that for a lot of families, getting signed up for WIC isn't always straightforward.
"I think it’s a multi-variable problem, but I do think internet and access to the internet and reliable broadband is part of that problem," said Crockett.
She added that on top of that, the different programs can be confusing.
"Because of how the systems work, a child could be eligible for SNAP at school, and then the mother might not even know that she’s eligible, or that parent is eligible for that WIC benefit on the adult side. So, a lot of the time children get covered in such a way, but the parent does not." Crockett said.
She said once children got to the age of five, many moms receiving WIC benefits had to reapply to meet a different eligibility criterion.
She hoped the Commonwealth could work to make a more seamless process where there's no wrong door for inquiring and eligible families.
"It’s a complicated system and I think this is just an example of where we can do better as a Commonwealth to protect our children and our families and our parents," Crockett said.
"So, if you think about the families that are struggling to put one good meal on the table a day, that makes me stay up at night."
She added the cascading effects of that hunger could be detrimental.
"So you’re going to have poor health problems, school is going to be a problem because you’re not going to be able to sit still because you’re going to be hungry, you're going to lose days from work. You name it," Crockett said.
However, the Virginia Department of Health, which administered the WIC program, said they had recently seen a significant increase in the participation of children.
"The data reported in the United Health Foundation's "2021 Health of Women and Children Report" is based upon the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA), WIC Eligibility and Coverage Rates, 2018. The retention of children in the WIC Program has been a nationwide concern for many years. However, the pandemic has changed the model of service delivery in the WIC Program. We are utilizing telehealth to complete the certification requirements, thus reducing or eliminating many of the barriers that affected program participation. During the pandemic, the Virginia WIC Program has realized a significant increase in the participation of children. In June 2019, the number of children participating in the program was 53,018 (pre-pandemic). In June 2020, the number of children participating in the program was 60,360, and in June 2021, the number of children was 65,842. Moreover, the Virginia WIC Program has seen tremendous growth in comparison to other states in the nation," said Paula N. Garrett, MS, RD, Virginia State WIC Director with the Virginia Department of Health.
You can find out if you're eligible, and apply for the WIC program here.
Crockett recommended those inquiring call the Virginia Department of Health to speak with a person who can walk you through the process.